Dining » Restaurant Reviews

A Sugar Binge

This week, we take a break from eating real food and live off of candy instead


A brief season of cheap, mass-produced, bulk-packaged candy has just ended. October always brings flashbacks of my Halloween forays as a kid. I'm not talking about my own trick-or-treating in those flimsy five-and-dime costumes that tied in the back like a hospital gown. I'm thinking back to my days as a conniving teenager, when I agreed to escort my youngest brother only if he compensated me with a hefty percentage of his candy.

Back then, we'd get big, full-sized candy bars, not the pathetic "miniatures" of today. I remember Caravelle bars, candy lipstick and candy cigarettes, even something called a Chicken Dinner— a nut-covered chocolate roll made by the Sperry Candy Company until the 1960s. I'm part of the baby boomer generation that still took home apples on Halloween (before that whole razor-blade scare), though I threw them out of my bag faster than you could say Granny Smith. They only weighed down my haul and were repulsively healthy. When you're craving pink El Bubble bubblegum cigars and boxes of Boston Baked Beans, a crisp Red Delicious just takes up valuable space.

That kind of obsessive thinking is the reason that I have to be careful about what I buy to give out on Halloween night. If it's stuff that I like, such as those enticing little Kit Kat bars, I'll plow through an entire bag before the first kid rings my doorbell.

Thus, I do my best to find something unattractive — say, the milky orange-and-cream lollipops that I discovered at the Dollar Store (or any other hard candy). I had four giant bags of that stuff last year but ran out before 8 p.m. Just like the voracious zombies in Night of the Living Dead, the treaters who had descended on Brookside kept knocking on the door until, in a state of desperation, I ran to the kitchen and grabbed a handful of square ramen-noodle packages and threw them into the bags.

A couple of kids tossed them back at me, but most of the greedy brats just assumed that ramen was Japanese for big candy and thanked me so profusely that I was overcome with guilt. At the next lull in the begging action, I locked my storm door, turned out the lights and crawled under the blankets.

Though one season of candy has ended, another is just beginning — this one even more dangerous for those of us who seem constitutionally incapable of abstaining from sweets.

And so this week is devoted to sugary self-indulgence. With Halloween just past and visions of sugar plums already dancing in my head, it's as good a time as any to out myself as a longtime candy junkie. Confession is good for the soul, right?

My love affair with the sweet stuff started early, back in the days when there was still such a thing as penny candy. It seems like a million years ago, but in the late 1960s there was still one of those dark, dusty, family-owned corner groceries in my father's hometown of Lockport, New York, and it still had an ancient, rounded-glass display case loaded with penny candy, including weird stuff that I haven't seen since: tiny ice cream cones topped with a dollop of sugar-dipped marshmallow, little wax bottles containing colored sugary liquid, Fizzie tablets. Kids would point at the pieces they wanted, and the chubby Italian woman behind the counter would pluck it up with her fingers — this was before modern hygiene required plastic gloves — and toss it into a paper bag. You could indulge a major sugar binge for less than a quarter.

I still have dreams about the stuff in that candy case, but the old grocery store was gutted decades ago. I assumed that the confections I saw in there had passed into history. Recently, I stumbled across the Web site oldtimecandy.com, an Ohio-based company from which I could still buy Turkish Taffy, root beer Fizzies, Mexican hats and marshmallow cones. Don't tell my dentist, but I ordered some.

Crate & Barrel in Leawood was giving away candy samples on its opening day last week, but I missed out. A store spokeswoman assured me that the sweets selection in the new store was comparable, if not better, than the array in the Chicago-based retailer's holiday catalog. I leafed longingly through those color pages, staring at the old-fashioned peppermint bark, chocolate-covered marshmallows and English toffee.

It was all seductively nostalgic, but plenty of old-time candy is made right here in Kansas City, too.

Steve Almond, the author of 2004's Candy Freak (who opens his book with the admission that he's eaten a piece of candy every day of his life), devotes an entire chapter to Kansas City-based Sifers' Valomilk. The chocolate candy bar filled with runny vanilla cream has its passionate devotees — the company sells well over a million bars a year — but I'm not one of them, only because it's too messy and sticky.

The Sifers family has made candy bars since 1903, but it long ago discontinued the confections that sound most interesting to me, such as the Old King Tut and Subway Sadie bars. What happened to them?

Russell Sifers, who now runs the candy company started by his great-grandfather Samuel more than a century ago, tells me that his grandfather Harry often came up with the name for a new candy bar before his chief candymaker created the recipe to go along with it.

"My grandfather loved current events," Sifers says, "so when the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamen was uncovered on November 4, 1922, it was such a big news story that everything Egyptian was hot. My grandfather decided to sell a candy bar named after King Tut."

The Old King Tut was a nut roll (not unlike the Chicken Dinner, which was introduced in Milwaukee about the same time), though Russell Sifers says he never tasted one. He didn't get to sample a Subway Sadie, either, which Harry Sifers named after a popular 1926 silent movie of the same name. But Russell says he did find a roll of old paper wrappers for the defunct candies when he was a teenager sweeping up the fourth floor of the old Sifers building at 20th Street and Main (where the Hereford House restaurant's parking lot is today). "Those nickel candy bars didn't have a long life span," Sifers says. "A big flash, then they were gone."

On the Valomilk Web site, Russell graciously includes links to other sites that sell vintage candy, including California's Annabelle Candy Company, which still manufactures the hard-to-find Rocky Road candy bars and the suggestively named Big Hunk ("A long-lasting mouthful of chewy, honey-sweetened nougat," the company boasts) bars.

Not that I need to go online for a fix. All kinds of head-spinning sweets can be had right here in town, including the chocolate-enrobed Double Stuff Oreo cookies and chocolate-covered butter caramels at Panache Chocolatier and just about anything in the display cases at Andre's Confiserie Suisse. Nothing costs a penny, alas.

My snobbier friends are dismissive about the more pedestrian selections at Russell Stover stores, but I have great fondness for this 83-year-old local candy company (which purchased the iconic 94-year-old Whitman's Sampler brand in 1993) and its hefty boxes of old-fashioned dipped candies. Of the half-dozen Russell Stover retail shops in town, my favorite is the Candy Kitchen operation at 51st Street and Oak that stays open until the civilized hour of 10 p.m. on weekends during the summer (but only until 6 p.m. from September until April). This venue sells cookies, ice cream and caramel apples in addition to candy. Candy-craving cheapskates can buy generous boxes of "factory seconds," too. I practically went into a depression when the Russell Stover stores stopped giving out free samples of the boxed chocolates in favor of the wrapped miniatures. One of the employees told me, "It's more sanitary this way."

Don't tell them, but that chubby Italian lady behind the counter in my father's hometown, the one who threw penny candy into a bag with her bare fingers? In her other hand was a cigarette.

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